“I guess you all wonder why I called this meeting…” – The Coup, Land of 7 Billion Dances.
This is a difficult film to review. Sorry To Bother You is a surrealist comedy with elements of horror. Political and social commentary, relating to class, race, and corporate power among other issues, run through the entire film, but in such a distorted form they are almost, but not quite, disconnected from their real-life targets. It is also the relatively straightforward story of a young man who loses his ethical bearings, but ultimately finds his way, passing through Riley’s wonderland of outlandish caricature and satirical fantasy as he goes.
But it’s all more complicated than that. Let’s ease in with a few words about the soundtrack, by eclectic band The Coup. The band was founded by its lead singer, Raymond ‘Boots’ Riley, who is also the writer and director of Sorry To Bother You, as well as an occasional actor and the man behind multiple film soundtracks. Riley, an activist from an early age, produced music with a distinctly political tone, including some fairly overt pieces such as the 2001 rap song 5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO. When Riley completed his first screenplay in 2012, he had no way to fund and produce it. With The Coup, he produced an album by the same name, Sorry To Bother You, which was loosely based on the screenplay and was meant to promote the film to potential backers. The effort was eventually successful: almost six years later Riley finally directed and released the film.
The story is set is Oakland, California, either in the present day or a very few years in the future. Lakeith Stanfield (Selma, Get Out) plays Cassius Green (by American pronunciation, “cash is green,” called Cash for short), a young black man struggling to find a job, reduced to renting a garage as a residence. His girlfriend, Detroit (Tessa Thompson, star of Dear White People), is an artist whose day job is holding up signs for local businesses.
Employment is scarce and people are desperate; so much so that many are apparently signing on with a new enterprise, Worry Free, whose posters and perky television ads are seen constantly – the first of the film’s many weirdly surreal, yet oddly fitting concepts. Worry Free, run by a vast corporation, is essentially voluntary, lifelong slavery in exchange for basic security and the essentials of life. Determined to avoid such a grim option, Cassius is overjoyed when he is offered a job as telemarketer.
Cassius’ new place of employment, a dismal warehouse filled with small cubicles in which employees try to make sales by phone, is a perfectly on-the-mark parody of a depressing workplace which attempts to keep up worker morale with trite pep-talks, scripted discussions of teamwork and the satisfaction of a job well done; and also with occasional promises that an employee who truly excels might become a ‘power caller’ and be moved upstairs, to bigger and better things which are not clearly specified. The promise seems clearly nothing but a carrot on a stick – but as Cassius comes to discover, it is an unexpected and sinister reality.
Life grows increasingly depressing for Cassius, as he finds himself hopeless at his job; everyone he calls hangs up on him the instant they hear his voice. He faces imminent eviction and feels like a failure. He is surrounded by hopelessness and discouragement; perhaps worst of all is television content, which continues to promote Worry Free, and where the most popular programme involves people volunteering to be severely beaten in front of an audience in exchange for money. Then his luck turns. Older co-worker Langston (Danny Glover) advises Cassius that he would have far more success if he used his ‘white voice’ during sales calls. Following a darkly funny bit of discussion about what makes a ‘white voice’ – Langston describes it as the voice of a man who has never felt threatened or worried about money – Cassius takes his advice. In yet another odd but hilarious and effective artistic choice, the ‘white voices’ of the characters are a voice-over by another actor speaking in a caricature of a stereotypically Caucasian-American voice, lip-synced by the actors on camera. As a result of this change, Cassius begins making unprecedented numbers of sales. He is promoted to the position of ‘power caller’ – unfortunately, just as his fellow telemarketers decide to go on strike for better wages, and Cassius must choose between loyalty to them and the promise of success. He accepts the promotion.
From here, the film begins to wind further and further down the rabbit hole. The longed-for upper floor to which Cassius is promoted is strange, something like an over-the-top parody of what an indignant unionist might imagine corporate executives do with their day behind closed doors, but the next step in his career is even stranger. Cassius is sought out by the founder and CEO of Worry Free, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), and invited to Lift’s mansion for a party and to discuss a job offer. Steve Lift is portrayed in a funny but slightly creepy way as a forward-thinking, hyper-confident tycoon, something of an amalgam of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Josef Stalin. After blatantly showcasing Cassius, his one black guest, to the rest of the party, Lift takes Cassius aside to make his offer.
The film finally spirals into the completely fantastical when Cassius accidentally discovers the terrible secret behind Worry Free’s plans, in grotesque scenes that require not only a firm suspension of disbelief, but the use of CGI. The plans, which involve making the human work force more adaptable to the needs of their employers, walk much the same line as other surreal aspects of this film: bizarre and ridiculous, but with an unavoidable and uncomfortable touch of the plausible. The cheerily amoral Steve Lift admits to everything, apparently certain nothing will be done to stop him – a conviction that is supported by the film’s portrayal of the general population as forlorn, defeated, and taking refuge in mindless entertainment. Cassius finally rejects his newfound success and all that goes with it, and, in a final burst of outlandish comedy, tries to find a way to turn Worry Free’s diabolical invention against them.
Sorry To Bother You is often silly and over the top, but these are qualities Riley and his cast make excellent and deliberate use of. There are only one or two scenes that feel extraneous, such as artist Detroit’s purposely freakish performance art show. The rest of the storyline is tightly woven, the satire somehow growing more biting and on target the more ludicrous it becomes. It is perhaps not for all tastes, but is also one of the most original, fearlessly creative productions you’re likely to see this year.